December 29, 2012

Grind local: Skowhegan grist millers tap old skills

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- Dale Watson was about 10 years old when somebody snapped a picture of him and his father, Charles, examining milling equipment at the family's grist mill in Skowhegan.

click image to enlarge

Dale Watson stands next to picture of himself and his father, Charles, at the Somerset Grist Mill, taken in 1941, on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

That was in 1945.

The black-and-white photograph is now displayed inside the new Somerset Grist Mill, just across the street from the Spaulding & Watson grist mill the family operated from 1922 until they sold it in 1955.

Watson, now 77, said he is closely watching the rise of the new grist mill, where Maine grains are milled for a growing, green-conscious market in health food stores and farmers' markets.

He was on hand for the dedication in September when the Somerset Grist Mill began operations. The mill now ships a ton of stone-ground, whole wheat flour and rolled oats a week to markets across New England, and continues to grow.

It was like history was repeating itself, Watson said.

"I was hoping that it was, and I think that it is history repeating itself," he said this week from mill owner Amber Lambke's office in the former Somerset County jail, downtown. "She's going to have a niche with the flour market; just the novelty of local flour, like for gifts at Christmastime, is something."

The Spaulding & Watson mill processed local grain raised by farmers, mostly for dairy and chicken feed. The five people who worked there also produced flour for local home consumption.

A railroad siding ran all the way to the old mill near the Skowhegan Indian statue off High Street. The municipal parking lot was an expansive railroad yard in those days, and coal sheds stood where Cumberland Farms is now.

The railway station occupied the spot where Aubuchon Hardware now stands.

Watson said that nearly six decades later, the new mill is using machinery similar to the one he and his father were looking at in the old photograph.

"I thought it was wonderful. The equipment, even though it is modern and new, it still resembles the equipment that was in the old mill," Watson said. "Everything is still much the same, but I expect it probably operates a lot better than most of the pieces we had."

Watson said Valton and Theo Neil, who bought the grist mill from his family, operated only for another seven or eight years, then sold to the people who founded Campbell's Hardware of Madison, but by then, the market had changed for milling local grains.

"All of the farmers had kind of disappeared and there wasn't a lot of grain business," Watson said. "When the railroad left, the downtown started to decrease, too, because it was a hub you had to come to to get your freight. They had three trains a day, then it went down to just one train a day and then maybe two trains a week. The railroad is what held the town together in those days."

The railroad ceased operations to Skowhegan in 1955, replaced by trucks that could easily carry finished grain products from the Midwest to central Maine. Passenger rail had ceased in 1948 or 1949 with the advent of automobiles.

"It's important to note the date that the railroad terminated in Skowhegan," Lambke said. "That affected the farming situation and the milling situation here. Any imported grain goods or flour or sugar that also helped to keep mills alive as an adjunct part of it, stopped -- you couldn't get those into Skowhegan."

Lambke said she and her business partner, Michael Scholz of Albion, bought the 1897 county jail in 2009, believing there was a new market for locally produced flour.

"Why we have focused on this idea is that local grain production and consumption skipped a generation, but the folks that knew how to farm it and remember the days when it was used, are not gone yet," she said. "That makes it an opportune time to take advantage of the knowledge people like Dale still have. We're trying to hold onto some of this information before it's lost."

Doug Harlow -- 612-2367
dharlow@centralmaine.com

 

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